Building Trust

While the newly named South Alabama Land Trust (formerly the Weeks Bay Foundation) sets its sights on the future, take a look back at its three decades of preservation and the two men who set it all in motion.

A friendship forged by conservation: “We started out just knowing each other through the Audubon Society, but I think we’re really good friends now,” Tonsmeire says. Photos by Matthew Coughlin

Of course, you don’t accomplish what Skipper Tonsmeire and Dr. John Borom pulled off without the technical know-how. Tonsmeire, the builder, knew real estate. Borom, the biologist and academic, knew how to explain the importance of preserving coastal habitat to politicians and the public. But sometimes, success is simply about knowing which cards you have up your sleeve and when exactly to lay them on the table. 

Thinking back on how it all started in the early 1970s, Tonsmeire can’t help but laugh to himself. He had convinced the vice president of land acquisition for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a charitable environmental organization based in Virginia, to visit a tract of land on Fort Morgan Peninsula, hoping that someone — anyone — would put up the money to purchase and protect the 1,400 acres of pristine beach habitat.

“I took him down there one day,” Tonsmeire remembers with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a conspiratorial whisper. “This was kind of planned at sunset, and the full moon was rising. We were standing up on top of these tall dunes, and it just blew him away. I knew how to present something, you know?”

Today, Borom and Tonsmeire admit they never could have predicted what that initial land purchase would set in motion — a winding journey that would lead to what is now known as the South Alabama Land Trust (formerly the Weeks Bay Foundation) and the preservation of almost 10,000 acres of ecologically important habitat.   

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“Maybe John had a plan back then,” Tonsmeire jokes behind his thick trademark mustache. “I didn’t have a long-term plan like that. It just kind of happened.”

Following that purchase, the land eventually became the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in 1980, a designation that required an act of Congress. An additional piece of land that was part of the initial purchase, but not adjacent to the Fort Morgan property, became what is now the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Over the years, a “friends group” for this reserve, spearheaded by Borom and Tonsmeire, has evolved into the South Alabama Land Trust (SALT), the only accredited land trust in south Alabama. 

“I think it’s important to ask people moving to the area, ‘Why did you come here? Was it because of the nature, the fishing and the hunting?’ If so, you should want to protect it, to pass it down to your children and grandchildren.”

Dr. John Borom

The immediate focus of the trust is land that is in imminent danger of being developed, thereby posing a threat to vulnerable species or habitats. But that’s not the only reason to protect coastal lands; undeveloped land along the water’s edge acts as a buffer, reducing erosion, harmful runoff and the economic impact of storms. A 2010 study from the University of Missouri showed a 70 percent reduction in runoff and a 50 percent reduction in sedimentation when farmers used a wooded buffer between their grazing lands and waterways.

As the need for land protection has grown, so has the foundation’s mission. Baldwin County has become the fastest growing county in the state, and the organization has become increasingly active in Mobile County. In other words, the Weeks Bay Foundation had outgrown its name, and few are happier about that than Borom and Tonsmeire, who now serve on the board of directors.“Changing its name to the South Alabama Land Trust is more in keeping with what we do now,” Borom says. “It will broaden our opportunity to preserve more land.” It’s an opportunity born 30 years ago by two men with an idea.

Skipper Tonsmeire “does things his own way” says friend, Win Hallett. “You could pick him out of a crowd pretty easily.”

How It All Started

“Skipper Tonsmeire dances to the beat of a different drum,” says Win Hallett, Mobile Chamber of Commerce president from 1991 to 2013. Hallett, who has known Tonsmeire for roughly 50 years through their work with the Coastal Land Trust, explains, “Skipper likes to be low-key, to fly under the radar. And maybe that’s one of the reasons he’s been so successful — he’s not interested in playing big shot.”  

Tonsmeire was raised in a house of eight boys near Dog River, “swimming, fishing, skiing, whatever,” he says. Talking with him outside the SALT office on Highway 98 near Weeks Bay, one would never guess, from his modest manner, the legacy he’s created or that the Weeks Bay Resource Center a minute down the road bears his name. Addressing the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008, Rep. Jo Bonner proclaimed, “While Skipper would vehemently deny this fact, we all know that had it not been for Skipper Tonsmeire’s vision, there would be no Weeks Bay Reserve or Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. His quiet, unassuming way has served the treasures of Alabama and our coast well.”

“Skipper is just a visionary,” says SALT Executive Director Connie Whitaker. “He’s one of those people who goes and gets things done. He can be rogue at times,” she says with a laugh, “but in the best possible way.”

How would she describe Borom and Tonsmeire? “Passionate,” she says. “They really are the guys who got this kicked off back 30 years ago.”

In 1972, Tonsmeire was a 30-year-old contractor working in Mobile when someone presented him with plans to develop the aforementioned property at Fort Morgan, with 8,000 feet of frontage on the Gulf of Mexico.

“It was a giant development of that whole property,” Tonsmeire remembers. “Thousands, literally thousands of units.”

Coincidentally, Tonsmeire was already familiar with the tract; he knew the former owners and had explored the untouched landscape in high school. “This was an incredible piece of land,” he says. “So I started looking for a way to find a conservation group to buy it.”

Through the Audubon Society, Tonsmeire had come to know 31-year-old biologist John Borom. Borom was immediately attracted to Tonsmeire’s idea, recognizing the property as a vital migratory bird stopover. The pair created an informational booklet to pass around, knocked on doors and generally made a lot of noise about the property.

“It was kind of a grassroot-type thing,” Borom says, noting that everybody thought saving the land was a good idea, but nobody had the money to buy it. 

Tonsmeire remembers, “I was sitting in the barbershop one day, and I read an article in Backpacker magazine. And it listed all the conservation groups and what their specialties were. And it got down to the The Nature Conservancy, and it said, ‘This is the sugar daddy of all land acquisition efforts.’ And I thought, ‘That sounds just like what we’re looking for.’”

Dr. John Borom, pictured at the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, was initially drawn to land conservation as a means to protect valuable bird habitat.

A Growing Mission

After Tonsmeire wooed The Nature Conservancy with his “ace up the sleeve” sunset, the planets began to align: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contributed some funding, and the support of Dave Morine of The Nature Conservancy and Rep. Jack Edwards proved invaluable. One act of Congress later, the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge was established, and Tonsmeire and Borom were bonafide conservationists. It was the pair’s first of many environmental wins to come.

“I think number one, we like each other, we trust each other, and neither of us joined this project for any reason other than it was the right thing to do,” Borom says. “We weren’t trying to make any money off of it. We realized that, since we enjoyed birds and fishing and all of that, we can’t enjoy that unless there’s habitat to support it.”

“We were doing something good, and John and I were having fun,” Tonsmeire adds. “I like fooling with real estate, and it was something I could do. There’s a lot of people who can do real estate, probably a lot better than me, but to do this conservation real estate, you’ve got to be willing to do it and not get paid for it. And that thins out the ranks considerably.”

“But I’ll tell you one thing,” Borom says. “Working together on projects like this, you really get to know somebody over the years, and we’ve become best friends.”

John Borom walks the paths of the Weeks Bay Reserve with a large camera slung around his neck, his thin glasses on the bridge of his nose. He identifies a colorful flower that’s unexpectedly sprouted in the middle of the wooded path. 

When posed a question, Borom answers thoughtfully and gently, demonstrating the patience that comes after 50 years in academia. He was born and educated in Fairhope, raised in its streams and gullies, and retired after four decades as campus director at Faulkner State Community College (now Coastal Alabama Community College). The 52,000-square-foot John L. Borom Center of Health & Natural Science Building on the college’s Fairhope campus is a physical testament to the administrator’s legacy — and it’s not the only Baldwin County landmark bearing his name.

“He started the birdfest down here,” Whitaker says, referring to the fundraising event that has raised more than $100,000 for preservation in its 16-year history. “It’s called the John L. Borom Coastal Birdfest. Dr. Borom is very committed. Very passionate.”

Whitaker, SALT’s executive director, has worked in the nonprofit realm for 10 years and has served in her current position for over a year. “I love our mission,” she says. “I just think we can’t do enough to save the things that define this area.”

In her office, Whitaker provides a snapshot of the land trust: SALT holds 23 properties, six conservation easements and has protected over 9,500 acres of land across Mobile and Baldwin counties. SALT, she explains, doesn’t generally seek to own a lot of land itself, preferring instead to acquire land and sell or donate it.

“As a land trust, we have a stewardship fund and an investment fund that we keep for the purpose of making land acquisitions. And in some cases we will keep the land ourselves, or it’s transferred to the state or Forever Wild. Sometimes when a property owner is interested in selling, they can’t wait two or three years for the state to make that transaction.” Conservation easements, in which landowners voluntarily agree to permanently limit the uses of their land in the name of conservation, have also become an important facet of SALT’s mission. 

“Some people who have had property passed down through generations are interested in placing that easement because they know that future generations might take the land and develop it, and that’s not what they want to see happen,” she explains.

After closing on a property, whether it’s a purchase, donation or an easement, SALT is required by its national affiliate, the Land Trust Alliance, to have a habitat management plan in place within a year. Land management might take the form of bi-annual burns, invasive species treatments or property line demarcations. The mission, in other words, is continually growing. With “two and a half” employees, SALT leans a lot on its dedicated board of directors, made up of individuals from completely different professional backgrounds.

“The beauty of it is that everybody can contribute to this,” Borom says. “You have skills that I don’t have. Skipper has skills that we don’t have. But working together as a team, we can get something done.”

Photo by Kathy Hicks

Memories pour out when Tonsmeire and Borom sit down together. Memories of riding on a motorized cart beneath the U.S. Capitol with Rep. Jack Edwards; of talking conservation in the living rooms of skeptical land inheritors; of the senators, congressmen and governors who played a part in the story. 

“There were a lot of people involved,” Tonsmeire says. “If you get the idea that John and I were the only ones involved, I’ll tell you this.”

“No,” firmly Borom concludes, finishing his friend’s sentence.

Whenever a new chapter begins, it’s natural to reflect on the beginning of the story. For the pair of conservationists, they’re carried back to the tall, windswept dunes of Fort Morgan. 

“The Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is not the largest refuge in the world, but it is beautiful,” Borom says. “It is just absolutely gorgeous. And that was the beginning of all of this other stuff. There’s a whole lot of gratification, and you feel so fortunate that you were in the position when the planets lined up.”

“I feel it,” Tonsmeire agrees, without a trace of hesitation. “I feel it when I’m down there.”

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